José Antonio Abreu: musician, philanthropist, ogre, caudillo

[02/03/2017] During the years that I have spent researching El Sistema, I have been struck by two aspects of its founder, José Antonio Abreu: the polarization of responses that he provokes, and the language in which he is described. As I wrote in my book:

His list of international awards is seemingly endless, and grows by the month. It includes the Swedish Parliament’s Alternative Nobel Prize for an “exemplary life.” He is deified by his admirers. In Venezuela, Hollinger (2006, 125) heard him described as “father and mother to The System and to us,” as the “creator, life and soul” of El Sistema, and as possessed of a “great love of mankind.” He has been likened to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and the Pope.

Yet I also encountered many strikingly negative views during my research, though they were more hidden: they required finding and gaining the confidence of knowledgeable Venezuelans, and digging around in newspaper archives and online. There, with a little persistence, I found another Abreu: the one nicknamed Machiavelli, the Godfather, the Führer, the Pharaoh. The writer Eduardo Casanova (2009) described Abreu as “totalitarian and opportunist” and driven by “money, power and fame.” A well-known conductor privately called him “a sinister genius, powered by narcissism,” and likened his saintly public persona to “the devil dressed as an angel.”

How might one interpret these polarized views? Two possible answers are provided by an article by the investigative journalist Rafael Rivero (1994). The author portrays the Venezuelan cultural scene at this time as deeply divided between supporters and critics of Abreu. One explanation, then, is simply that the views of both factions circulate, if some more publicly than others. However, the title of the article gives a further clue. Rivero famously labeled Abreu “The Philanthropic Ogre.” This title was borrowed from Octavio Paz’s 1978 book of the same name, which examined the inherent contradictions of the Mexican state: an entity that simultaneously showed humanitarian concern with its people, particularly the poorest, while acting in a regressive and violent manner, censoring and persecuting and closing political spaces. This is thus a heavily laden and highly suggestive label for Latin American readers, and its attachment to Abreu gives pause for thought. In particular, it suggests a profound and inherent duality to Abreu.

Quite different words have regularly been applied to Abreu by more admiring journalists, particularly from the global North, including “visionary,” “radical,” and “revolutionary.” Assessing the validity of such labels requires delving into the history of 20th-century Venezuelan music, something that Ludim Pedroza (2015) has done to considerable effect. It is only when we consider Abreu’s predecessors and the antecedents of El Sistema that we can make a judgment on such language.

This short essay is an attempt to understand the contradictory aspects of Abreu and to place him more firmly in his Venezuelan context by exploring parallels and contrasts with the career of his teacher and one of the towering figures of 20th-century Venezuelan music, Vicente Emilio Sojo. It views the subject through the lens of Fidel Rodríguez Legendre’s book Música, Sojo y caudillismo cultural (Caracas: Fundación Vicente Emilio Sojo, 1998). Lengthy consideration of this book is justified by its inaccessibility to both non-Spanish-speakers and those outside Venezuela. Legendre barely mentions Abreu, but his central analytical construct – the caudillo cultural, or cultural strongman – is highly appropriate to an examination of El Sistema’s founder, as Manuel Silva-Ferrer (2014) suggests, and it also bears a resemblance to Rivero’s “philanthropic ogre.” Both labels imply an ambivalent or contradictory individual who gives with one hand and controls with the other.

On the first page of his prologue, Legendre immediately sheds light on this tension by alluding to the dictatorial nature of democracy in Venezuela and the authoritarian, caudillista approach to social action that has been commonplace there. There are strong echoes not only of Octavio Paz but also of James C. Scott’s Seeing like a State and its detailed examination of the blend of utopian social engineering and authoritarianism that characterizes modernist developmentalism – the ideology to which Abreu became attached in his 20s. The author also describes Sojo as a figure who provoked admiration yet was autocratic and controlling. From the beginning, then, we may see parallels between Sojo and Abreu (the latter described by Casanova (2007) as “the little dictator (el dictadorzuelo) of music in Venezuela”), and also between both figures and an ideology that was dominant both nationally and internationally in the mid-20th century. “The philanthropic ogre” thus appears not as an aberration but very much as a man of his time and place.

The caudillo cultural frame allows understanding both Sojo and Abreu in their wider historical and social context. Caudillismo is a major historical feature of Latin America, and it too is double-edged: simultaneously a source of social domination and social order. Caudillos typically operate through patronage and clientelism, promising and giving out benefits such as land and employment. This is precisely how Sojo and particularly Abreu worked; the latter is famous for his micromanagement and the necessity of his personal touch to open doors and resolve problems of all kinds. Caudillismo is commonplace in classical music contexts, in which following the orders of a charismatic director or conductor is quite normal. It is no coincidence, then, that musicians such as Sojo and Abreu are paradigmatic examples of the cultural caudillo.

Rodríguez Legendre cites a 1984 thesis on the history of music education in Venezuela by Sans and Palacios, in which the authors suggest that no musical caudillo arose to replace Sojo. 33 years on, I strongly suspect they would see things differently. Today, the parallels between Sojo, the politician-musician who ran everything, and Abreu, minister of culture and “little dictator,” are too obvious to overlook. A complex, authoritarian character who brooked no argument, almost owned his students, and defined himself through a grand, overarching project – Rodríguez Legendre (1998, 89-90) is describing Sojo, but it could just as well have been Abreu. Sojo died in 1974; Abreu’s National Youth Orchestra began in 1975. It might not have been obvious at the time, but this was a moment of transition from one cultural caudillo to another. In many ways, as Rodríguez Legendre notes, Sojo conditioned the Venezuelan classical music sphere to function under the leadership of a caudillo; he thus set the scene for Abreu.

One of the less obvious parallels between Sojo and Abreu can be found in their responses to a decade of ferment, the 1960s. This was a time of political turbulence and leftist rumblings that impacted on the cultural sphere, and it saw two important musical developments. First, there was a shift in the centre of musical nationalism from the art music to the popular music sphere, specifically the genre of nueva canción, which was more in tune with youthful politics and the rise of a leftist cultural paradigm. Second, this decade saw the rise of modernism in Venezuelan music. There were three large contemporary music festivals in the 1950s and 60s, and the new generation of composers in Venezuela was more interested in the latest techniques from Europe than the nationalist school that Sojo represented. Somewhat left behind by the times in the 1960s, Sojo was firmly against contemporary musical ideas, and he defended the nationalist school to the last. Once a pioneering figure, he now railed against modernity.

Abreu launched the National Youth Orchestra a year after Sojo’s death with a concert of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Vivaldi. A more traditionalist program is hard to imagine. Today, his program’s most famous alumnus, Gustavo Dudamel, specializes in Beethoven and Mahler in his work with the orchestra’s latest incarnation. With his aversion to contemporary music and even more so to popular music, Abreu and his project may be seen as a counter-reaction against the radical developments of the 1960s, and a continuity with Sojo’s resistance to musical modernity at the end of his life. Indeed, for all the claims of radicalism that have become attached to El Sistema, it in fact adheres to the three constants that Sans and Palacios identify in the history of music education in Venezuela: centralization, the reproduction of models from overseas, and caudillismo (cited in Rodríguez Legendre 1998, 43). In core respects, then, El Sistema is more conservative than radical, and represents continuity more than revolution.

One of Pedroza’s (2015) key arguments is that Abreu’s mythification of himself and El Sistema rests on a downplaying or elision of the richness of Venezuela’s 20th-century musical history in order to present himself in a more pioneering light. This argument receives support from Rodríguez Legendre’s depiction of national musical life in the half-century before El Sistema’s emergence. He describes a Venezuelan musical renaissance in the 1930s and 40s, with new ensembles and institutions created or planned and audiences thriving. He depicts vibrant concert societies in the 1950s, patronized by middle-class listeners. The three large festivals of contemporary Latin American music in the 1950s and 60s included figures such as Copland, Ginastera, and Chávez. The quantity of musical activity, not just in Caracas but also across the country, was impressive: orchestras, chamber music, choirs, contemporary music, and many international musicians passing through. This was far from the land without (classical) music that has become part of the Sistema origin myth.

Of particular interest is the information about the growth during the 1950s of cultural programs for workers to occupy their free time, which included musical programs (mainly folkloric), and the notable growth in the number of music schools in the 1960s and 70s. Various interesting new educational projects appeared in the decade or so before El Sistema’s foundation. These included music schools in poorer neighbourhoods of Caracas such as La Candelaria, Coche, and Petare. Abreu’s National Youth Orchestra originated in the Juan José Landaeta conservatoire, created in 1972 out of a school that had been founded in 1969. All this information problematizes the commonplace characterization of Abreu and his project as a radical irruption into a moribund educational and classical music sphere.

It is also worth comparing Rodríguez Legendre’s depiction with Abreu’s claim to have democratized classical music in Venezuela. He has returned to this theme repeatedly; for example, in telling his personal story to the British journalist Ed Vulliamy, he stated: “I found insidious the situation whereby access to music had become the privilege of the elite.” Yet Rodríguez Legendre suggests that the flourishing of classical music in mid-20th-century Venezuela rested on a growing urban middle class, not “the elite” as Abreu likes to say. A large rise in European immigration in the 1950s, too, had a notable impact on musical life and audiences (and these immigrants were not, by and large, “elite” either). Most classical musicians were middle-class as well, though some were working-class (the author refers to one who moonlighted as a cobbler).

Of considerable relevance here is also the Inter-American Development Bank study published in late 2016, which revealed that of a sample of nearly 3000 children chosen at random from 16 núcleos in 5 states, only 16.7% fell below the poverty line (whereas the poverty rate for the states in which they lived was 46.5% at the time). In other words, El Sistema’s self-description as aimed at “the most vulnerable groups in the country” is just as flawed as Abreu’s characterization of pre-Sistema classical music as “a monopoly of elites.” In reality, classical music was, and continues to be, a much more middle-class affair in Venezuela than Abreu admits, and the shift from “the elite” to “the masses” has been much more modest than he claims.

A final parallel may be found in Rodríguez Legendre’s characterization of Sojo in terms of cultural promoción rather than animación. The former describes a transmitter/receiver model, a hierarchical process, the unidirectional transmission of knowledge. The latter signifies an exchange; the arrow points in both directions. Abreu, too, obeys the promoción logic: his project is markedly vertical, involving decision by imposition rather than discussion. Children are treated as empty vessels into which knowledge is poured, and pawns in an adult game. This is one of many ways in which Abreu looks back to older educational ideologies rather than representing progressive or radical change.

Despite these continuities, some important differences can be noted between Sojo and Abreu, and between their respective grand projects. Sojo not only founded key musical groups (such as the Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela and the Orfeón Lamas), but also led and oversaw the nationalist school of composers. He worked on various fronts at once, and he was interested in Venezuela’s folklore and musical past (such as its colonial repertoire) as well as new nationalist composition. Indeed, the first two were seen as foundations for the third.

Sojo’s grand project, then, was multifaceted and coordinated, as well as connected to wider Latin American currents; it balanced composition, ensemble performance, and education. In comparison, Abreu’s project has been much more lopsided. It has excelled in the field of ensemble performance, but has provided minimal sustenance to composers and has shown little interest in traditional music (until the creation of Alma Llanera, after 36 years) or Venezuelan art music of previous generations. Sojo’s ensembles disseminated nationalist repertoire, indeed this was part of their raison d’être. In El Sistema, Venezuelan repertoire has been largely reduced to a handful of warhorses and encores, repeated ad infinitum. Education has been a lower priority than training under Abreu.

Another striking difference concerns adaptation to contemporary currents. Sojo stuck rigidly to his beliefs and thus fell behind the times in the final decade of his life, losing influence over the musical sphere. Abreu, in contrast, shifted from minister of culture in the neoliberal administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez in the early 1990s to cultural ambassador of the socialist government of Hugo Chávez in the 2000s. This dramatic change of political alignment and rhetoric allowed Abreu not only to maintain but even to increase his power as a cultural caudillo. However, it has led some in the cultural field to contrast Sojo and Abreu as moral authority versus opportunist.

To conclude, the information provided by Rodríguez Legendre and Rivero, and their memorable labels of “cultural caudillo” and “philanthropic ogre,” suggests that Abreu should be viewed as a contradictory figure who embodies a tension between socio-cultural action and authoritarianism that runs through Venezuelan cultural and political life more broadly. The popular characterizations of Abreu in the international media and documentaries, as a combination of saint and revolutionary, are thus multiply flawed. Continuities and regressions are more evident than breaks or radicalism, and the changes have been criticized as much as praised within expert circles in Venezuela. The hagiographic portraits of journalist-devotees such as Chefi Borzacchini and Tricia Tunstall omit vital parts of the story and fail completely to convey the duality of Abreu and of the Venezuelan musical and social currents that he embodies. He is as much sinner as saint, conservative as revolutionary, and he can only be understood by grasping the ogre within the philanthropist and the caudillo within the maestro.


Casanova, Eduardo. 2007. “Abreu Siempre En Domingo.” Literanova.

Casanova, Eduardo. 2009. “El Dictador Ya Tiene Su Músico y Su Director de Orquesta.” Libertad, Preciado Tesoro. March 2. 2009/03/el-dictador-ya-tiene-su-musico-y-su.html.

Hollinger, Diana. 2006. “Instrument of Social Reform: A Case Study of the Venezuelan System of Youth Orchestras.” DMA, Arizona State University.

Pedroza, Ludim. “Of Orchestras, Mythos, and the Idealization of Symphonic Practice: The Orquesta Sinfónica de Venezuela in the (Collateral) History of El Sistema.” Latin American Music Review 36, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2015): 68-93.

Rivero, Rafael. 1994. “El Ogro Filantrópico.” Exceso, March.

Silva-Ferrer, Manuel. 2014. El cuerpo dócil de la cultura: Poder, cultura y comunicación en la Venezuela de Chávez. Frankfurt: Vervuert Verlagsges.